A tooth abscess, also known as a dental abscess, is a severe infection located in or around the root of a tooth. This dangerous condition requires prompt treatment to prevent the infection from spreading deeper into tissues and bone. Learning the causes, symptoms and treatment options for a tooth abscess can help you seek care quickly if you suspect you may have one.
What Causes a Tooth Abscess?
There are several potential causes of a tooth abscess:
Tooth decay that is left untreated can lead to damage deep in the tooth and infection in the pulp (nerve and blood vessels) of the tooth. Bacteria can multiply in the dead and damaged tooth structure, spreading infection into inner tooth structures.
Cracks or chips in a tooth can also allow bacteria to infect the inner pulp of the tooth, especially if the crack extends below the gumline.
Previous Dental Work
In some cases, previous dental work like fillings, crowns and root canals can develop small gaps around their edges over time. Bacteria can then get trapped under restorations. This can cause a localized infection and abscess.
Injury to a tooth through a sports impact, fall or blow can lead to pulp damage. This leaves the inner tooth at risk for bacterial infection and abscess.
Advanced gum disease can damage and destroy ligaments and bone around teeth. Pockets that form from gum loss allow penetration of bacteria to the root tips and inner structures. Abscesses can then form due to this severe infection process.
Compromised Immune System
Certain medical conditions and medications can diminish the body’s immune response. This can make some people more prone to oral infections and abscess formation around teeth. Diabetes, cancer treatment medications, HIV/AIDS and autoimmune disorders are examples.
Signs and Symptoms of a Tooth Abscess
The signs and symptoms indicating you may have a tooth abscess include:
Tooth Pain: You may experience throbbing, severe tooth pain from a tooth abscess, especially when chewing or applying pressure. The pain is often intense given the swollen infection occurring deep within the tooth layers and nerves. Pain may start suddenly if the infection spreads quickly.
Sensitivity to Hot and Cold: An affected tooth with an abscess may become extremely sensitive to hot or cold temperatures. Even minor stimulation from hot drinks or cold air can trigger sharp tooth pain.
Gum Swelling Near the Infected Tooth: Inflammation and swelling in the gums around an infected tooth is common. The abscess causes pressure to build within the tooth, inflammation spreads to surrounding gum tissues.
Other Gum Problems: An emerging abscess may lead to other gum issues like reddening or bleeding of the gums around the area of infection.
Tooth Discoloration: In some cases of a severe tooth infection, the tooth itself begins darkening to a grey, yellow or brown coloration. This occurs from changes to the inner tooth pulp and structures from the abscess.
Swollen Lymph Nodes: Large abscesses and infections can lead to swollen lymph nodes in the head and neck area as your body fights the spread of infection. Nodes near the ears, jawline and throat may become tender.
Drainage of Pus: Once an abscess progresses far enough, a tiny drainage hole or fistula may emerge on the gumline near the infected tooth. Pus drainage, often foul smelling, indicates a large abscess below that is beginning to leak out through gum tissues.
Loose Teeth: As a tooth abscess expands and damages nearby supporting bone, it can cause teeth to loosen. The loss of supporting bone structure allows the tooth to shift.
Difficulty Opening Jaw: In advanced cases, a large tooth abscess or related infection can spread to deeper jaw tissues making it harder to open the mouth fully.
Fever and Illness Sensation: Widespread infection from an untreated abscess can cause body-wide symptoms like an elevated temperature, chills, fatigue and general feeling of being unwell. Seek prompt medical treatment in this situation.
The Dangers of an Untreated Tooth Abscess
It’s essential not to ignore signs of a potential tooth abscess. While the symptoms may seem localized at first, a spreading infection can have serious consequences if left unattended including:
Permanent Tooth Loss
The infection and inflammation from the abscess damages the tooth structures from the inside out. Tooth loss can eventually occur. Quick treatment is key to saving the tooth.
Spread of Infection to Tissues and Bones
The infection from an abscess can spread from the tip of the tooth’s root outward into the supporting tissues, jawbone tissue and surrounding areas. This progression can form an extremely painful pocket of pus and infection.
If treatment is delayed, the infection has a pathway into deeper facial structures, muscles, bones, the sinuses or even the neck and throat regions. This can have dangerous, potentially deadly complications like airway obstruction, meningitis, encephalitis and sepsis. Hospital intensive care may be required.
Though extremely rare, it is possible for tooth abscess infections to spread through the bloodstream and affect the function of distant organs like the heart, lungs and brain. The risk of this life-endangering problem increases among those with pre-existing health conditions.
Diagnosing a Tooth Abscess
Only a dentist has the specialized equipment and training to definitively diagnose an abscessed tooth. However, some signs and examination tools that may aid diagnosis include:
A clinical oral exam allows dentists to check for dental causes like cavities or cracks as potential origins of infection and inflammation. They can also spot gum disease in advanced stages. Dental x-rays provide additional visualization of problems below the surfaces.
Tapping lightly on teeth to test for sensitivity is part of identifying a possible tooth abscess during diagnosis. Pain upon tapping indicates inflammation in the inner tooth layers.
Palpation of Facial Areas
Your dentist may apply light pressure on the nearby face, cheek, jaw and neck areas to detect soft tissue swelling that often accompanies a tooth abscess.
Special heated or cooled dental testing tools help dentists locate temperature sensitive teeth that may signal an emerging abscess.
Probing the Gums
Gently probing the areas around teeth and beneath the gum lines allows detection of loose gum tissue, pockets of infection or draining lesions characteristic of a large abscess.
Seeking Prompt Treatment is Crucial
If you experience any suspicious tooth pain, swelling or other troubling symptoms, promptly contact your dentist to have your oral health evaluated. Catching a tooth abscess early vastly improves outcomes from treatment. Waiting to seek help allows the unchecked spread of infection and risks serious health dangers. Call your emergency dentist if you suspect a severe tooth abscess at any hour of the day or night.
Treatment Options for a Tooth Abscess
Treating an abscessed tooth as quickly as possible is vitally important. Your dentist will decide on the best treatment approach from several possibilities:
Most tooth abscesses will require antibiotic medications to control the underlying bacterial infection. Along with other treatments, antibiotics help resolve abscess symptoms and limit the spread of infection. Take the full course as directed for effectiveness.
Drainage and Debridement
Dentists may opt to create a small opening to drain the built-up pus and infection from a severe abscess. Cleaning out diseased tissue relieves pressure and helps the tooth heal.
If the tooth is severely damaged from decay and cannot be restored, pulling the abscessed tooth will be required. This fully removes the infection source. You can arrange tooth replacement later through choices like a bridge, partial denture or implant.
Root Canal Therapy
In cases where damage is limited to inner tooth pulp structures and has not destroyed the main portions of the tooth fully, a root canal can eliminate diseased tissue while saving the tooth. The empty canals are cleaned, disinfected, filled and sealed to prevent reinfection.
Additional Dental Work
Restorations to repair cracks with bonded composites or dental crowns may help stabilize a treated tooth and strengthen areas prone to bacteria and food debris accumulation if decay and cracks contributed to the abscess development.
Preventing Future Tooth Abscesses
Practicing excellent oral hygiene and having professional cleanings and dental checkups every 6 months helps prevent tooth abscesses through early detection of problems. Additionally, good home care like brushing carefully along the gum lines, flossing daily and going easy on sugary snacks limits tooth decay risk. Using a mouthguard during contact sports protects teeth from traumatic injuries that could lead to infection. Avoiding smoking is also key to gum health. Seek prompt care if new oral symptoms arise before they escalate to a severe abscess level. Stay vigilant and take charge of your dental wellness!
The most common symptoms of a tooth abscess include severe throbbing tooth pain, sensitivity to hot and cold in the affected tooth, gum swelling around the tooth, tooth discoloration and possibly drainage of pus from the gums.
Common treatments for a tooth abscess include draining the infection, prescription antibiotics, having the damaged tooth pulled if it cannot be saved, root canal treatment and restorative work like fillings or dental crowns if decay contributed to the abscess.
It is important to seek prompt medical and dental care if you notice signs of a possible tooth abscess instead of waiting. Catching this infection early allows for much simpler treatment before it spreads or causes complications. Severe symptoms require emergency dental attention even outside regular office hours.
Practicing good oral hygiene through regular careful brushing, daily flossing, using mouthwash, getting routine professional cleanings and avoiding excess sugary foods helps prevent tooth abscesses by limiting dental decay. Also avoiding injury-causing actions like chewing ice or playing sports without a mouthguard reduces abscess risk. Seeing your dentist quickly if new concerning symptoms appear allows early intervention.
If left untreated, a tooth abscess can destroy tooth structures and supporting bone leading to permanent tooth loss. The infection can also spread deeper into facial tissues, the sinuses, neck and throat areas leading to more systemic illness. In rare cases, life-threatening complications like sepsis, airway obstruction or brain abscesses can occur if infection spreads unchecked through the bloodstream.